Self-Portraits by a Woman Artist Make Top Prices in Indian Auctions

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A visitor poses with a self-portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil at Christie's auction house in London on June 5. Three of her works have been sold for over $2.5 million at auctions this year. Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant blog.

Three works by Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter regarded as a pioneer of modern Indian art, have sold for over $2.5 million at auctions this year. All are self-portraits by an artist whose works have a rarity value internationally because they have been declared "national treasures" by the Indian government, which means that those in India cannot leave the country.

The latest of the three works, a 22-by-18-inch oil on canvas, went for $2.65 million, including the buyer's premium, at Sotheby's annual South Asian art auction in London on October 6.

That was halfway between Sotheby's top and bottom estimates but below the artist's record of $2.92 million achieved at Sotheby's New York sale in March this year. It was also just under a similar work at Christie's in London in June that fetched $2.72 million and is rumored to have been bought by one of London's richest Indian industrialists. The other two works are said to have gone to U.S.-based collectors.

The artist died in 1941 at the early age of 28, and there are only 173 documented works, 95 of which are in Indian museums, notably the National Gallery of Modern Art that has an impressive permanent exhibition displaying the full range of her work.

Very few are abroad, so those that come to the international market have a rarity value that boosts prices. Once a benchmark figure is set for such an artist, as happened for the first time for Sher-Gil in March, collectors are encouraged to sell, egged on by auction houses and dealers who seek out potential lots.

Last month, works by F.N. Souza hit new records twice in just eight days, reaching $4 million, so there was hope that demand at the top end of the market was strong enough for the latest Sher-Gil to beat the March record.

But it was not to be, even though it had the added attraction of being sold by the daughter of Boris Taslitzky, a left-wing French painter with Russian Jewish parents who was Sher-Gil's lover and muse when both were young art students in Paris.

Sher-Gil's international background was quite different from India's other leading modern artists such as Souza and M.F. Husain, and she was well established by the beginning of the 1930s, 20 or more years before their Progressives Artists' Group began in Mumbai.

She is respected because her works have more originality than the Progressives, who drew heavily on established Western artists such as Picasso and Matisse, and because of her use of strong colors.

Born in 1913 in Budapest with a Hungarian Jewish mother and an Indian Sikh father, she was taken by them to Paris when she was 16 to pursue her artistic studies, and she remained there for about five years till she moved to India. In Paris, she lived a bohemian lifestyle with both male and female admirers, who included Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and controversial personality, as well as Taslitzky.

Sotheby's sale produced mixed results with some other good prices, including one for an Husain, but 27 percent of the 111 lots failed to reach their reserve price and did not sell. A similar percentage were sold below the estimates.

Those that did not sell included a major work by Sayed Haider Raza, a leading member of the Progressives. It's top bid was $730,000, which was not only below Sotheby's $762,000 lowest estimate but was also lower than the rupee equivalent of $905,000 paid by the owner at a Mumbai-based Saffronart online auction in 2010.

The sale totaled about $7.4 million, including buyers' premiums, which put it in third place behind two other leading auction houses' recent South Asian auctions—Christie's, which totaled $8.77 million in New York last month, and Saffronart, India's main online auction house. Saffronart occasionally stages live auctions, which it did in New Delhi a week before Christie's and achieved sales totaling $12.7 million, with only two of its 75 works not being sold.

Trailing dismally behind all three was Bonhams, which had a modern art auction in London on October 5 and sold only nine out of 33 lots. Sales totaled about $250,000, about half of which came from a remarkable 120-by-108-centimeter lapis lazuli mosaic of two horses by Ismail Gulgee from Pakistan that fetched $132,000, including the premium.

Sotheby's did much better with a sale of Indian miniature paintings owned by the Sven Gahlin Collection, which roughly doubled $2.8 million presale expectations with a total of $7 million. The sale was led by a late 17th-century painting depicting a Mughal Prince on horseback holding a falcon, which sold for $501,000 that had been estimated at $92,000 to $201,000.

There is now a continuing stream of Indian art auctions throughout the year. Pundole's of Mumbai, one of India's oldest galleries, has a significant auction in Mumbai in early November, and Christie's plans a high-profile one, also in Mumbai, in mid-December. After the recent mixed results, the market will be watching to see whether these two auctions pack in the key ingredients of winning selections of works and sufficient high-spending buyers.

John Elliott is the author of Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).

Self-Portraits by a Woman Artist Make Top Prices in Indian Auctions | Opinion